At a gathering at the Seattle Space Needle to pay tribute to Senator Carroll, tragedy strikes. Newspaper reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) tries to get into the private party at the top of the building by saying he's with old girlfriend Lee Carter (Paula Prentiss), who is also a reporter, although for television, but she foils him by saying he's not with her. When she gets up to the party, she witnesses a terrifying incident: Senator Carroll gunned down by one of the waiters who flees only to fall off the roof to his death. But there is another waiter (Bill McKinney) with a gun at that occasion, one who goes largely unnoticed by the crowd... one who really carried out the shooting while the other man takes the blame. And yet the authorities insist there is no conspiracy.
Scripted by David Giler and Lorenzo Semple Jr from Loren Singer's novel, The Parallax View came hot on the heels of the Watergate scandal, which would be the subject of director Alan J. Pakula's next film, All The President's Men. But while that film has a ending which sees justice served, this film is far more mordantly cynical. Its opening has echoes of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and these must be deliberate as the nineteen-sixties murders of RFK, Martin Luther King and especially John F. Kennedy cast a long shadow over the story, and all the resulting conspiracies that followed the official verdicts that the assassins acted alone.
This film is one of the cycle of nineteen-seventies paranoia movies that Pakula contributed so much to at the start of the decade with Klute, but The Parallax View is possibly the best of them. Three years later from the Carroll killing, Frady is a pain for the local police from his way of becoming part of the story in his investigative journalist manner, much to the dissatisfaction of his boss, Bill Rintels (Hume Cronyn displaying old school integrity). But when Lee arrives at his door in a state of barely-controlled panic, he is sceptical when she tells him her life is in danger. The people who were witnesses at the Carroll assassination are being mysteriously killed off, she avers, and she could be next.
Frady sends her away, but when she does indeed turn up dead, loaded with alcohol and barbiturates in her car, he has second thoughts and starts digging. He hopes to track Carroll's aide Austin Tucker (William Daniels) to a small town but when he gets there, not only has a judge died there in those by now expected mysterious circumstances, but Frady is also attacked by the local police, at first because he is a long-haired stranger and then because the sheriff (Kelly Thordsen) seriously wants to kill him. One high speed escape later and he has an all-important clue: a questionnaire from the Parallax Corporation. This shady organisation is recruiting social misfits and Frady believes if he can get close to the heart of them, then he may find the answers he needs.
We never get a true sense of just how far reaching the Parallax Corporation is, and that's the cleverest part of the film: any one character could be part of the conspiracy and we can only trust Frady or the ones who are dead. Beatty is superb at conveying Frady's crusading but nonconformist nature, which ironically makes him perfect fodder for the organisation, and the test film he watches, as we do, is a brilliantly unsettling montage of images designed to evoke reactions for enigmatic reasons. The whole approach is a mixture of the matter of fact and the suspicious, rendering the most apparently innocuous images sinister, and the whole reinforces the viewer's mistrust of the authorities, as we have already witnessed there was something funny going on from the first scene. It's not matter of if they'll get Frady, but when and this is the rare, non-horror film that finds gratification in having the worst fears confirmed. Music by Michael Small.
As the eighties dawned, Pakula had a hit with Holocaust drama Sophie's Choice, but seemed to lose his touch thereafter with middling efforts such as the odd drama Dream Lover, expensive flop Orphans, hit thriller Presumed Innocent, failure Consenting Adults, Julia Roberts vehicle The Pelican Brief and Harrison Ford-Brad Pitt team up The Devil's Own. He was once married to actress Hope Lange and died in a road accident.